Framing the debate.

George Lakoff has an important  post over at  Daily Kos.  It’s an analysis of  what’s gone wrong in the health care debate, but it also has a lot of relevance for anyone who is concerned about advancing some cause in an organization.  Among other things, it reminds us that changing the ways people think and act is no small matter.  That certainly includes the myriad of ways in which organizational actions affect women’s professional lives.

I’ve read the Lakoff in terms of one major point; do read it for yourself, since you may well want to focus on other things.  But here’s the one that caught  my attention.  It’s with regard to an approach the Obama people have adopted  that Lakoff calls “PolicySpeak”:

To many liberals, PolicySpeak sounds like the high road: a rational, public discussion in the best tradition of liberal democracy. Convince the populace rationally on the objective policy merits. Give the facts and figures. Assume self-interest as the motivator of rational choice. Convince people by the logic of the policymakers that the policy is in their interest.

But to a cognitive scientist or neuroscientist, this sounds nuts. The view of human reason and language behind PolicySpeak is just false. Certainly reason should be used. It’s just that you should use real reason, the way people really think. Certainly the truth should be told. It’s just that it should be told so it makes sense to people, resonates with them, and inspires them to act. Certainly new media should be used. It’s just that a system of communications should be constructed and used effectively.  (All stress mine; since I agree with Lakoff, I’m using italics for the nutty stuff and underlining the true stuff.)

Let me give an example from academia:  I have a close friend involved with one of the most despised organizations on his campus.  It is regarded as a fat cat that lives off state funding and never brings in federal dollars, which is the gold standard for success in science on most  US campuses.  However, in fact the organization has brought in millions and millions in federal money, and it has high standing in the scientific community.  So over the last several years he’s talked to administrators, prepared short handouts, long handouts, gone over the handouts with zillions of people.  He’s given powerpoint presentations, had people to meals, etc.   All the people he’s talking to are deans and above becausse they are the ones creating the most problems; they keep trying to shut it down or take resources from it.  They are highly educated people who have some experience in administering large organizations.   If Laykoff is right, his action probably did not have much effect.  And in fact they didn’t.  Probably he should consider hiring someone who does marketing.

So what do you do to get it right?  Well, language and what we select to describe are very important.  We’re not going to have much impact on the health care debate in the States, but the work is something we could well think about when we advocate that, for example, women are asked to be keynote speakers at conferences.  If Lakoff is right, then we might try to frame the message in a way that appeals to fundamental values in the philosophy profession.  For example, philosophers are close to obsessed with justice, fairness and true merit.  We could think about making sure that our concerns are seen in those terms.

Another value women philosophers share  for the most part is inclusion and cooperation, so I am not  for one second proposing this as a project for just a few people.  Have a look at the Lakoff and see if it inspires any ideas.  If so, please share them. 

His piece is long, but really interesying.  You probably could get a lot out of it by reading only parts of the second half.

3 thoughts on “Framing the debate.

  1. JJ, you suggest that we ought to frame the inclusion of women as a matter of justice, fairness, and true merit. But, isn’t this how we already frame it? I am just curious because that is the way I understood the need to include women, because their exclusion is unfair, it perpetuate an injustice and discourages talented women from continuing in philosophy.

    One thing about the Kos article, he keeps stressing that the debate should be grounded in patriotism and the idea that Americans “care about each other.” But I am wondering how well that will go over, since I think there is also a strain in American discourse that one ought to provide for one’s self, and providing for others is an optional benevolent act of charity (and should be elective rather than mandated). I have heard this from my cousins who are republican-leaning. I am wondering whether some kind of “level playing field” argument, such as the one Daniels makes when he ties health to equality of opportunity might go over better with a larger segment of people.

  2. In my last paragraph I made it sound like either Obama should stress caring, or he should stress fairness. I am sorry for that, I meant the fairness to be a supplement an “and” and not instead of caring.

  3. Hi Bakka, you are reminding me that of course Lakoff may not be entirely right. So it’s not necessarily going to advance things to defend his every word.

    Still, the thing that makes your comments hard to respond to is the fact that though we want the results to look pretty clear and simple, deciding what to do is very complicated. And I think your remarks point to just this:

    1. We do see the issue of the inclusion of women in terms of justice and merit, but we often enough raise the issue without bringing these to the fore. One consequence is that a number of responses we get don’t address the merit issue at all or, worse, suppose or assert that we do not care about merit.

    2. Do Americans care about each other? I’m supposing that Lakoff thinks emphasizing this would have countered some of the Republican tropes – e.g., there will be death panels and Obama is just interested in pushing us toward socialism.

    I hope this makes sense. I think today may be a fuzzy thinking day…

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